As a result of shelter-in-place and social distancing conditions imposed on citizens to combat the spread of coronavirus throughout the state of Georgia, the number of child abuse reports has decreased, Georgia Gov. Brian P. Kemp said.
Kemp and members of his coronavirus advisory committee announced these findings during a press conference in early April.
But while a reduction in reports of child abuse would normally be considered a positive outcome, there is concern by social workers in the region that the findings reported by Kemp and others are instead a result of gross underreporting.
Instead, they argued, the reduction in the frequency of reports is due to a number of imposed restrictions that prevent social services professionals and mandated reporters to adequately meet with children they would typically be able to observe when schools are open.
According to the Georgia Department of Education, education professionals, including teachers, principals, and school counselors, are the most common reporters of child abuse, making up nearly 60 percent of all child abuse cases in the state.
One of the reasons why, besides the fact that they spend at least eight hours a day with children, is that the State of Georgia classifies education professionals as mandated reporters, which by definition requires them to observe, notice and report cases of child abuse.
The State also considers employees and volunteers of any organization that provides care, treatment, education, training, supervision, coaching, counseling, recreational programs, or shelter to children, as mandated reporters. This includes organizations like the YMCA, The Boys Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of America, and even hotels.
But because shelter-in-place ordinances prevent children from attending after school programs or visiting community centers, many of these organizations now have limited or only emergency access to children, which prevents them from catching and reporting many instances of child abuse or neglect.
The ordinances have also resulted in protocol changes for social workers from Child Protective Services, a division of the Department of Family and Children’s Services — changes that prevent case managers from investigating instances of abuse or neglect, which could save a child’s life.
According to a Dekalb County case manager who asked to not be identified, since the spread of the virus, CPS case managers are only visiting with children face-to-face as first responders, and all other case managers, including foster, independent living program (ILP), primarily meet with their wards virtually via FaceTime, Zoom, or other forms of video communication.
The managers only execute face-to-face visits if there is an emergency, the case manager explained.
“We are taking every step and precaution to protect ourselves and the children in care,” the case manager said. “When we are video conferencing we visit with the kids alone, interview them, see their rooms, and assess their overall well-being.
“If we determine or see something wrong a face to face visit takes place and further steps. The safety of children is still our number one concern,” the case manager continued. “Now, due to coronavirus, when we go out we ensure safety by wearing face masks, gloves, and social distancing when possible. However, some interaction is unavoidable. It’s a part of the job.”
Other social service providers agreed that school closures have exacerbated the virus’s impact on child abuse.
Maurice Ravennah, a child care professional and CEO of Phoenix International, Inc., an independent living program (ILP) that transitions foster care youth to adulthood, said that area schools are responsible for so much more than simply reporting instances of child abuse.
“Child abuse is definitely on the rise,” Ravennah said. “The ramifications of COVID-19 aren’t just on the economy; it’s the actual family structure and dichotomy.
“For so many kids school isn’t just a place they’re educated, it’s a protector, babysitter, and even just a place to get two steady meals a day during the week,” he continued.
Phoenix International is a contracted provider authorized by DFCS to assist with the aforementioned transitioning of children who age out of care. They have worked for the department for nearly three years and currently serve, and house, nearly twenty youths ages 17 to 23 years of age.
Ravennah, who possesses nearly four years of experience in social work, explained further that parental stress, brought on by current conditions, would also contribute to an increase in child abuse.
“What we are seeing is that now that (kids) are home with their parents during all of this, there’s a higher chance of them being disciplined more and harsher because their parents are overwhelmed or become impatient,” he said.
Another issue that social workers took concern with is the issue of malnutrition.
Fortunately, area school systems like Atlanta Public Schools, Fulton County Schools and DeKalb County Schools have waivers from the Department of Agriculture to provide free lunches for closed schools.
The counties affected by school closing have quickly organized programs with the City of Atlanta and other municipalities to distribute lunches, canned food items, and some perishable items like cheese, lunch meat, and even chicken.
There are currently 21 locations throughout Fulton County alone, to assist with this endeavor. Additionally, Atlanta Public schools have amended their program to offer food weekly instead of three times a week.
In the absence of school systems and youth-related organizations, professionals and officials are asking individuals to be hypervigilant of any signs of child abuse, even if they’re someone who has minimal access to other people’s children, such as a neighbor or a grocery store worker.
“We all need to deputize ourselves, in the sense of acting like mandated reporters,” said Lamont Motley, a program director for Phoenix International Inc. “We really are all in this together, as a community let’s do our part. So if you see something, say something.”
If you suspect or know of a child being abused, please contact the Department of Family and Children Services at 1.855.GACHILD (+1 855-422-4453).